Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that infects the respiratory tract and causes cold-like symptoms. As a matter of fact, it is so common that many children will catch it before their second birthday.
RSV enters the body through the eyes, nose or mouth. It can spread easily through the air when someone with RSV coughs or sneezes nearby, or by touching infected people or contaminated surfaces. Now, you may be wondering if such a contagious virus poses a risk to your baby. For most of us, RSV causes nothing more than a cold that lasts less than a week, but it can be dangerous for some infants and young babies. Those at greatest risk of severe RSV infection include:
Symptoms of RSV infection generally begin to appear 4 – 6 days after exposure to the virus and vary depending on the disease severity and age group. It is important to note that while the initial symptoms may appear mild at the onset, the disease can become severe 3 – 5 days into the course of the illness. Early symptoms of RSV include:
In severe cases, the virus can spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing RSV bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) or RSV pneumonia (infection of the lungs). Signs and symptoms may include:
Infants are most severely affected if infected by RSV. In young infants less than 6 months old, some severe cases may also develop apnoeic episodes – periods during which the baby abnormally stops breathing.
RSV infections typically go away in a week or two, but during this time if you notice your baby having a blue tint to their lips or fingernails, refusing milk feeds persistently, appearing lethargic, or breathing rapidly, please seek urgent medical attention and go to the A&E immediately.
To diagnose RSV, your baby’s paediatrician will first take a medical history and perform a medical examination, including listening to your baby’s lungs. If necessary, and depending on your baby’s condition, the paediatrician may perform some additional tests, such as:
There is no specific medication that treats the virus itself. Management of RSV generally involves supportive and symptomatic care of the baby at home in mild cases:
For severe cases where your baby requires hospitalisation, the treatment may include:
For most healthy infants or babies, RSV is similar to the common cold. In some susceptible infants, RSV can lead to complications such as RSV bronchiolitis and RSV pneumonia, which may require hospitalisation.
There are concerns that severe RSV infection in the first few years of life may be associated with recurrent wheezing, asthma and impaired lung function.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent RSV infections. In specific high-risk populations, healthcare providers may give monthly injections of an RSV-specific monoclonal antibody (palivizumab) before the onset of RSV season to confer some protection.
Since no vaccine exists for RSV, the only prevention is through lifestyle habits:
A: RSV is contagious. Do keep your child at home and avoid sending him/her to school or daycare. This will also prevent your child from being co-infected by another viral illness, or acquiring a superimposed bacterial infection.
A: Yes. Parents and other adults can easily pass RSV to infants and young children. Most children acquire the infection after exposure to infected family members, or from other infected children in school or communal play facilities.
A: Children can certainly transmit the virus to their parents or other family members.
A: Previous infection with RSV does not convey persistent immunity and reinfection is common, though the severity of infection tends to decrease with increasing age.